Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Iron Fists and Trademarked Smiles


About a year ago, I got the opportunity to work with Steve Heller on another book, Iron Fists: Branding The Totalitarian State (Phaidon, 2008). Photographing Steve's extensive collection of Chinese figurines and totalitarian paraphernalia was a great pleasure. Housed in a veritable museum of graphic design, pop culture and design ephemera, Steve's collection is as impressive as it is comprehensive. The latest in a long list of Heller's publications, Iron Fists, is a brilliant examination of the ways in which totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy and Communist China) used graphic design to branded themselves and solidified their control.

From Mao's "Mona Lisa smile" and Lenin's proletarian cap to Mussolini's Futurist posters and the Hitler's infamous swastika, the visual cues, typeface, logos and jingles of the various regimes were all as carefully crafted and considered as the marketing efforts of Madison Avenue ad executives. As Heller writes,

A popular brand of frozen food or laundry detergent is not forced down the consumer’s throat with an iron fist...[nevertheless] the design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar.
Heller's exploration does not attempt to diminish the atrocities of the various regimes, but rather illuminates the efficacy, influence and powerful sway these efforts had over their populace. Considering the continued confluence of design, state power and propaganda, the lessons from this era have continued relevance.

It's also telling that three of the profiled dictators considered themselves artists - Hitler, a architect and watercolorist; Mao a calligrapher and poet; and Mussolini, a pulp novelist and hypermasculine sex symbol. As "artists," the state become their platform to terrible ends. Clearly influenced by (and working in collaboration with) the Futurists, the Russian Constructivists and other artists, the regimes drew upon the artistic heritage and wealth of their nations to design and wield terrible instrument of power.


© Steve Heller, All Rights Reserved

   © Steve Heller, All Rights Reserved

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